Review

Once Upon a Time, India Inspired the World

What today’s India can learn from the foreigners who once fought for its cause.

Mahatma Gandhi In Paris
Mahatma Gandhi In Paris
Mohandas Gandhi and his associate Madeleine Slade—also known as Mirabehn—to his immediate right, arrive at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on Sept. 12, 1931. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
By , a writer based in New York.

Political boundaries are not always strong or solid enough to contain idealism or beliefs. People have disregarded nationalism often enough and fought for causes they had little to do with. The Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who viewed nationalism with deep distaste, wrote a long essay in 1917 during World War I decrying nationalism, and also said in 1908: “I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity.” Earlier in 1901, the English essayist G.K. Chesterton had said, more pithily, “‘My country, right or wrong’ … is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

There have always been people driven to embrace others’ struggles as their own and become part of another nation’s narrative. Often, they have taken up weapons to fight wars in distant lands. Some are driven by the lure of income (think of mercenaries joining private military companies), some by a sense of vocation (Gorkhas joining the British, Indian, or Singaporean army or defense forces), and some out of commitment to a nation (the French Foreign Legion). Others are driven by ideals—at times noble (the international brigades defending the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War), at times nihilist and evil (the fundamentalists who gravitate to al Qaeda or the Islamic State). Understanding that human impulse, as Russian troops invaded his country late last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to those who supported Ukraine’s sovereignty, including foreigners, to take up arms and defend his country. Some foreigners are responding to his call.

In Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom, the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha writes about seven such men and women, who were not Indian, who were appalled by colonialism and driven by a desire to support India’s freedom struggle but also inspired by nonviolence and influenced by Mohandas Gandhi’s quest for justice. They made India their home; five would live to see India become free; six of these seven would eventually die in India; all of them would shun public office. Some would criticize post-independent India’s economic policies or political authoritarianism, and many would work for the underprivileged, marginalized, and vulnerable groups in India.

Mahatma Gandhi In Paris
Mahatma Gandhi In Paris

Mohandas Gandhi and his associate Madeleine Slade—also known as Mirabehn—to his immediate right, arrive at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on Sept. 12, 1931. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Political boundaries are not always strong or solid enough to contain idealism or beliefs. People have disregarded nationalism often enough and fought for causes they had little to do with. The Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who viewed nationalism with deep distaste, wrote a long essay in 1917 during World War I decrying nationalism, and also said in 1908: “I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity.” Earlier in 1901, the English essayist G.K. Chesterton had said, more pithily, “‘My country, right or wrong’ … is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

Book cover
Book cover

Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom, Ramachandra Guha, Knopf, 496 pp., $35, February 2022

There have always been people driven to embrace others’ struggles as their own and become part of another nation’s narrative. Often, they have taken up weapons to fight wars in distant lands. Some are driven by the lure of income (think of mercenaries joining private military companies), some by a sense of vocation (Gorkhas joining the British, Indian, or Singaporean army or defense forces), and some out of commitment to a nation (the French Foreign Legion). Others are driven by ideals—at times noble (the international brigades defending the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War), at times nihilist and evil (the fundamentalists who gravitate to al Qaeda or the Islamic State). Understanding that human impulse, as Russian troops invaded his country late last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to those who supported Ukraine’s sovereignty, including foreigners, to take up arms and defend his country. Some foreigners are responding to his call.

In Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom, the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha writes about seven such men and women, who were not Indian, who were appalled by colonialism and driven by a desire to support India’s freedom struggle but also inspired by nonviolence and influenced by Mohandas Gandhi’s quest for justice. They made India their home; five would live to see India become free; six of these seven would eventually die in India; all of them would shun public office. Some would criticize post-independent India’s economic policies or political authoritarianism, and many would work for the underprivileged, marginalized, and vulnerable groups in India.

The seven men and women Guha has chosen to focus on in this book include a few names that are familiar but also include some unusual choices—one is Irish, four are British, and two are American. They are Anglophone and white. They include the Irishwoman Annie Besant; the Brits Madeleine Slade, B.G. Horniman, Philip Spratt, and Catherine Heilemann; and the Americans Samuel Stokes and Ralph Richard Keithahn. Guha focuses on those whom the British had jailed, expelled, or interned because of their activism. For Guha it meant they had met Indians on equal terms “as comrades on the street and in prison too.” It is that aspect—suffering, in short—that appears to have been the author’s deciding factor. (The absence of Gandhi’s close friend Charles Freer Andrews is understandable, as he wasn’t jailed or banished, but less so is the absence of Nellie Sengupta, a British woman who defied her parents to marry an Indian student who lodged with them at the University of Cambridge, and who moved with him to India, where she was jailed and eventually rose to be the president of the Indian National Congress in 1930s.)

The importance of these seven should not be overstated. It was ­Indians who mostly fought, and indeed suffered, for India’s freedom. Yet the presence of these men and women in the struggle hit a raw nerve, needling the conscience of Britain, which could no longer see the experience in brown-and-white terms. Their stories should stir the global conscience: for the ideals of equality, democracy, and justice that drove them to identify with India; for the Indians they made common cause with, in particular those who have since gone forgotten during the process of national development; and for the elite legal and political power structures they opposed. They deserve particular attention in India, which is in the midst of an identity crisis and busy discarding the values that once made it so attractive.


Annie Besant and Jiddu Krishnamurti
Annie Besant and Jiddu Krishnamurti

Annie Besant, right, is joined by Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti from the Order of the Star in the East at a congress in Ommen, Netherlands, circa 1928. Imagno/Getty Images

Of Guha’s subjects, perhaps the best-known is Annie Besant. She came to India in 1893, coincidentally the year Gandhi left for South Africa, and would meet the pacifist leader only years later. A London-born Irish liberal, she supported trade union rights and women’s rights (including contraception), and she turned to the 19th-century religion known as Theosophy, which brought her to India. Once in India, she plunged into the nationalist movement, helping set up the Indian Home Rule League, which was modeled after her Irish experience. She even became the first woman to serve as president of the Indian National Congress in 1917, and she was one of the founders of the Banaras Hindu University.

Besant would argue with Gandhi, sometimes chiding him in public and private. She had the audacity to write to him once that only time would tell which of the two (Besant and Gandhi) had been more faithful to India and freedom. And once in public she told Gandhi to calm down when he was busy admonishing an audience for not caring enough for ordinary Indians. She was a strict rules-based constitutionalist and found Gandhi’s radicalism—in particular his mass mobilization—problematic, but she did not stand in the way. Today, one of Mumbai’s major roads is named after her.

Madeleine Slade became one of Gandhi’s closest associates. When she came to his ashram in 1925, Gandhi told her she would be like his daughter. She was 32 then (and Gandhi 56). She wanted to learn to live by Gandhi’s ideals and principles in daily life. He gave her the name Mira, a reference to a medieval princess who left her husband and became a poet-saint devoted to the Hindu lord Krishna. Mirabehn, as she came to be known, adopted an ascetic life, but she also joined Gandhi in London when he went there seeking India’s independence. She would leave India a decade after independence, partly out of her dismay when she saw India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, embracing a policy of industrialization, moving away from Gandhian ideal of making the village and rural economy central to Indian identity. In 1983, India issued a postage stamp honoring her.

Annie Besant and BG Horniman
Annie Besant and BG Horniman

At left, Besant is pictured circa 1897. At right, B.G. Horniman is pictured circa 1918. The Library of Congress and Unknown/Public Domain

B.G. Horniman was a witty newspaper editor whose Bombay Chronicle frequently questioned the colonial government, and the world learned the horrors of the Amritsar massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 because of its reporting. There, Gen. Reginald Dyer had ordered his troops to open fire at hundreds of unarmed civilians who had gathered at a park in defiance of a curfew, in which 379 died by official count. Horniman’s newspaper was an outspoken supporter of Indian nationalism, and, as Guha notes, he had “made it his mission to see that Indians were given the same rights of liberty and freedom that Englishmen took for granted.” The British expelled him and did not let him return to India; he did return, cleverly, and surreptitiously, via Ceylon, a journey that Guha recounts in one of the more thrilling parts of the book. Horniman also founded the Press Association of India, and today an elegant circle in Mumbai is named after him.

More interesting is Guha’s choice to profile Philip Spratt, a communist who had studied at Cambridge and who thought India was ripe for a communist revolution. He plunged headlong into organizing the working class in India. In the late 1920s, Viceroy of India Edward Wood wanted to undermine India’s incipient freedom movement by making it harder for the radicals to travel, and he wanted to pass a bill on public safety, which would curb civil liberties. The colonial administration then swooped on many communists and leftists, including Spratt, and implicated them in what came to be known as the Meerut Conspiracy Case. The trial was extremely expensive by the standards of the 1930s (by one account it cost 126,000 pounds, more than $12 million today) and produced copious amounts of evidence, but the court would have none of it, and most of the supposed conspirators were given minimal sentences. Spratt was no fan of Gandhi’s nonviolence, but he was touched when Gandhi visited the Meerut detainees, and he would later write admiringly about the Indian activist.

Disillusioned by the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, Spratt would later support Manabendra Nath Roy, an Indian communist (who would later found the Communist Party in Mexico), and he turned to radical humanism. Later in life, Spratt became an ardent anti-communist, editing a pro-capitalist journal from Madras. He would later say that the extreme left and extreme right were closer to one another in curbing freedoms than they realized.

The other three whom Guha has chosen to write about are relatively less known. They include Samuel Stokes, a Quaker who became a Hindu and came to India in 1904 and later changed his name to Satyanand. He settled in the Himalayan foothills and is credited with introducing apples in Himachal Pradesh; they are now a major crop of the state. In 1920, he joined Gandhi’s noncooperation movement and vigorously campaigned for the abolition of forced labor. Jailed for opposing that modern form of slavery, Stokes was a fierce individualist who disagreed with Gandhi’s insistence on making the spinning of cloth a requirement in the Congress Party. He also wrote to Gandhi in 1939, as World War II was breaking out, arguing that India should ally with the British against the greater menace of Nazism. Gandhi disagreed, and during the war he would launch the Quit India independence movement. Guha pointedly notes that Gandhi had avoided Stokes’s crucial question—what the fundamental difference was between British and German imperialism.


Mahatma Gandhi with his supporter, Madeleine Slade, and two goats.
Mahatma Gandhi with his supporter, Madeleine Slade, and two goats.

Gandhi visits London in 1931 with Slade, pictured to his right. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Guha is a prolific author; he has written expertly on cricket and the environment, and has chronicled post-independence India without making it read like a newspaper’s account, offering it depth and perspective in a lucid style. More importantly, he is the author of the voluminous two-part biography of Gandhi—Gandhi Before India (2013) and Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World (2018)—which shows his nuanced admiration of Gandhi. Guha lauds his many achievements while taking a critical view of some of his political positions and personal practices.

Such sensitive assessments are mostly absent today. Seventy-five years after India’s independence, Gandhi evokes partisan responses everywhere. The world that once looked at him with awe—think of Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi, which makes him a saint—now questions his views on race, based on his offensive references to black South Africans in his early writing. (A university in Ghana removed Gandhi’s statue in 2018.) In India, too, the government has downgraded his importance significantly. The current political leadership encourages the view that Gandhi was an ineffective pacifist whose nonviolent struggle weakened India and delayed India’s freedom, with one ruling party official holding him responsible for the Partition of 1947. Some ruling party politicians have even celebrated his assassin, Nathuram Godse, as a misunderstood patriot.

Guha’s nuanced appreciation is more reflective of the response of many of Gandhi’s own contemporaries, including the foreigners who are the subjects of this book. They did not always agree with Gandhi—some argued with him, some took a different path. But they were aligned with his idea of India, and they had made his vision of the country their own. They were seven among many. When Gandhi traveled to Britain, he would go on walks in the grimy parts of East London where he would live, and children would join him on the marches. He was loved even by textile workers in Manchester, who suffered because Gandhi’s call to boycott British goods. For Gandhi’s appeal was moral, and he sought to persuade you if he disagreed with you.

These men and women saw the failings of their nations or the nations with which they were somehow aligned. They wanted to make Britain live up to the values it claimed to represent, which was also Gandhi’s message to the British. In so doing, they went against the grain, even making themselves unpopular among the establishment in London by trying to remind the British of “their better selves,” just as the Americans were “acting in the anti-imperialist tradition of their homeland,” as Guha puts it. By walking with Indians, they reassured Indians that they needn’t feel alone in fighting for their cause. They showed courage and their commitment was long term. All these years later, Guha said in a recent interview, “after the last of these rebels passed on, what they did and what they said still speaks to Indians today. If only we could listen.”

Guha’s cri de coeur is genuine. It comes from a yearning for the liberal India vanishing before our eyes, replaced by a country where the government selects the refugees to be let in based on their religion, where citizenship rules are amended to make it more onerous for Muslims, where the government is unable to decide which side to back as Russia invades Ukraine, where dissidents are being jailed without being formally charged or tried, where history is being rewritten to undermine heroes of the freedom struggle who were secular and exaggerate the role of minor players who were Hindu nationalists, and where television anchors outshout one another as they seek to hold the opposition to account for governmental failures. All this has come to pass in a country where the generation that had fought for its freedom or seen the dawn of independence in 1947 is disappearing.

Toward the end of his book, Guha writes: “Hindus, it is now said, are destined to be the world’s Vishwa Guru, teachers to the rest of humanity. They have apparently nothing to learn from or gain from the world in return.” It is a diagnosis of hubristic arrogance—and of an abandonment of the example set by Gandhi, who learned from the world and later taught it. It is no accident that dozens of cities around the world have roads, monuments, or institutions named after Gandhi, and not after the present Indian government’s preferred heroes. Guha has performed a huge service in reminding us why and how India inspired others in the first place.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.

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